At Custer's last stand, a first stand for Indians

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Every June, Enos Poor Bear Jr. journeys from his home in Martin, S.D., to a wind-swept promenade here in southeastern Montana to pay homage to his forebears who fought in one of the seminal battles of the American West.

Mr. Poor Bear, a Lakota Sioux, walks past all the tourists who inevitably congregate at a white obelisk marking the site where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and members of his 7th Calvary died in the battle. He and his friends, instead, stop down the slope, where they pray, perform cleansing rituals, and turn their heads away from the battle reenactments occurring in the distance.

Wednesday Poor Bear and hundreds of other native Americans will no longer have to celebrate one of the great military triumphs ever achieved on US soil from the relative shadows.

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Some 127 years after routing Custer at Little Bighorn, they will finally get a memorial honoring the Indians who died in the famous siege. On a barren ridge overlooking the Little Big Horn River, fringed by cottonwood, the federal government will unveil a circular monument recognizing the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters who repelled an invading army sent to extinguish their traditional way of life.

"We can begin to rewrite history with this memorial if we [western tribes] can get our act together and form a unified effort," says Poor Bear, who wears his hair in braids nearly to his waist. "It's an opportunity to honor the way of life that we struggled to maintain."

The $2.3 million memorial, perhaps appropriately enough, will share the same bluff as the monument to the 7th Cavalry. The main architectural element is a circular stone wall, part of which is topped by Indian figures on horseback, sculpted out of steel rod. The spherical design is inspired by ancient "medicine wheel" worship sites dotting the high plains. Two "weeping walls" have been reserved for tribes to inscribe names or words to honor the 100 native Americans who fell in the epic struggle.

The battlefield itself, despite drawing thousands of tourists each year, remains remarkably unmolested. White tombstones marking where Custer's troops fell in the one-day skirmish are scattered about like sugar cubes. The landscape is stark: a largely treeless expanse of Montana prairie where only the wind and enigmas of history rule.

"What's emotional about Little Bighorn is that you can stand anywhere on the battlefield and see a landscape that looks pretty much as it did in 1876," says Bob Reece, president of Friends of the Little Bighorn National Monument. "You really get a sense of being there. So much of what actually happened remains a mystery. It's a mythological episode in our common past that captures our imagination, whether you find affinity for Indians or the men in blue."

Symbol to spur reconciliation

Longtime proponents of the memorial hope it help foster a larger public dialogue about the European conquest of native peoples in the US and ongoing efforts to bring cultural reconciliation. "Completion of this Indian memorial has been a long time coming, like 127 years," says Darrell Cook, the superintendent of Little Bighorn National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service. "This is the first one that truly recognizes the conflict between the Indian and non-Indian people in the West."

For Earnie La Pointe, the great-great grandson of famed Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull - who predicted the outcome of the battle on the basis of a vision he had had - the memorial holds profound symbolism. As a proud Vietnam veteran who has traveled to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and wept for fallen comrades, he's convinced this shrine will be a similar touchstone for native Americans.

For Poor Bear, seeing the memorial through to completion is part of a promise he made to his father, Enos Poor Bear Sr., and Northern Cheyenne elder Austin Two Moons. Both men, active in a high-plains movement to revive Indian traditions, selected the site where the memorial now stands. Both died before ground was broken for the memorial.

The multifaceted shrine is a project that began during the administration of the first President Bush and then, following years of failed efforts to win federal funding, finally moved forward under the current Bush presidency.

"It's hard to overestimate the monument's significance," says Mr. Reece. "This is a big, big thing for our country."

Wednesday's dedication will bring together an unusual group of proponents, among them activists with the American Indian Movement, political conservatives and liberals, Indian elders who can speak little English, and Custer buffs.

Yet the memorial hasn't come without controversy. One focal point, which has left Indians divided, is the artistic reference to tribes fighting at Little Bighorn, including the Crows and Arikaras who served as scouts for Custer.

Other critics have argued that native Americans are owed no special recognition for annihilating part of the 7th Cavalry. Although Indians may have prevailed at the battle of Little Bighorn, critics contend, they lost the war.

"There are [white] people out there, luckily small in number, who don't want this to happen," Reece acknowledges.

During much of the 20th century, the lion's share of public education at the battlefield focused on the movements of the cavalry, treating Indians as nearly invisible. Indeed, with no significant markers to call their own, many Indians have felt oddly out of place, even here. The worst indignity, they say, was having to pray all these years in the shadows of shrines erected to Custer and his men.

Changing attitudes

Yet, slowly, public attitudes about how history should be presented here have evolved. In 1991, the name was changed from "Custer Battlefield" to the more neutral Little Bighorn Battlefield. Also, in addition to the white headstones marking where soldiers fell, a smattering of red granite headstones have appeared to commemorate specific warriors who died. Now native Americans have their own dedicated piece of hallowed ground.

In the end, Mr. La Pointe says what matters is not the memorial's physical trappings but the fact that it exists at all. He interprets the memorial's construction as an admission from Washington that the treatment of native peoples has never been adequately addressed.

Moreover, he hopes the memorial provides an impetus to resolve a number of issues, including grievances relating to tribal sovereignty, compensation for broken treaties, and meaningful federal investment on reservations.

For Mr. Cook, the superintendent of the site, the battleground holds special significance, too. He is a relative of Dewey Beard, the last surviving participant in the Little Bighorn clash as well as a survivor of the US Army's slaughter of unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Beard died in 1955, but Cook, who has spent 33 years with the Park Service, remembers talking as a child with Beard. "People have been saying that this event closes the circle. No, it doesn't," he says. "Installing a memorial was a big step but there is a lot more to do. We need to bring more balance to the larger story."

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